Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, published in 1957, set the stage for road trip culture, idealizing the open road and the adventure of auto travel. These days, our time on the road is often accompanied by GPS and mobile technology. As a result, we tend to take roads for granted until a tire hits a pothole or the ride to work becomes more jarring. Considering the technology we have, there is no reason why potholes and cracked asphalt need to be part of the driving experience.
In the past, road asset management programs were expensive and highly complicated. They were only affordable by large transportation agencies such as states, provinces or large cities. As a result, many smaller municipalities with smaller budgets pursued a “worst roads first” approach to road expenditures. Now, powerful cost-effective analytical software is available in a user-friendly format that is within the reach of even the smallest municipality, so they too can get better return on their investment. In an era of very limited budgets, it has been proven that it is more cost-effective to devote more of the budget to preventive maintenance so as to preserve the good roads, and then fix the bad roads in a more strategic manner.
Optimization vs. Prioritization
In the past, there were only a few rehabilitation treatment options available and the need for documenting the details of the pavement distresses was less critical. Pavement recycling was in its infancy, and the treatment of choice was a simple hot mix asphalt overlay. Now, with optimization software, we can look at a road network and evaluate tens of thousands of scenarios (that include a range of treatments for each road segment in a network over a 10-year planning cycle) to figure out what works best in terms of outcome, treatment and best value for money. Even better, these customized solutions are generated in just a few minutes.
Given WSP*’s experience working with municipalities in many countries, in the fall of 2016, we formed a strategic alliance with Infrastructure Solutions Inc. (ISI) as a social entrepreneurial undertaking to create greater awareness around the advantages of preventive maintenance and to advance development of a low-cost municipal road network capital planning tool. The optimization software adopted is a result of 10 years of engineering research and development at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada that was customized by ISI with technical input and verification by WSP* road engineers.
Using the software for a typical municipal road network in a community that has been doing roadwork on a “worst first” basis, confirms that by prioritizing preventive maintenance, and selecting the appropriate treatments, municipalities can realize 7% to 17% better outcomes in terms of road condition while allocating the same amount of money they currently spend. That is certainly a welcome alternative to raising municipal taxes.
Example: WSP* worked with a medium-sized rural municipality in Ontario with 320 kilometers (200 miles) of low-volume roads. The municipality had two budgetary options, to spend $1.2M or $1.5M per year for 10 years. They wanted to compare outcomes for the two levels of expenditures.
We conducted a detailed condition survey as input to the software, along with the road segment inventory details, traffic data, and municipality preferences. The pavement engineer reviewed the output against the assessment goals to confirm that the results met the client’s objective of comparing the expenditure options and the road network serviceability that could result from each scenario. We gave the town a list of year-by-year priorities in a very straightforward report, outlining the recommended treatments for each road segment under each budget scenario.
This provided the decision makers at the municipality with a detailed visual plan that they used to determine that a small annual expenditure increase delivered a much higher level of service and significantly better outcomes.
Public Opinion Matters
Municipalities receive constant feedback about poor road conditions. In an attempt to appease tax payers, they use their roads budget to fix small sections of road, instead of doing the repairs in a planned and strategic way. A systematic and organized approach is needed to target the right road segment, at the right time with the right treatment.
Working with our clients to shift the emphasis from replacing all the bad roads (worst first) to taking a portion of the budget to maintain what they already have is a strategic change. The software addresses the cost versus “gain in service life” part of the scenario, and yields results that can support the municipality’s decisions on which roads get preventive maintenance and which get more intensive treatment.
The software is especially useful for communication with taxpayers. After a road assessment is performed, a town hall meeting, public comment workshop or email survey can be used to gather the public’s thoughts and use their feedback to set the socio-economic factors that are considered important for certain roads and features — such as prioritizing bike lanes and school roads — for the software analytics to consider when producing output. This creates goodwill and an understanding among the public that the municipality cares about its people financially and emotionally.
The roadway maintenance prioritization can be explained this way: “Over a 10-year period we’re going to try to touch every road to some degree. We’re going to invest something, and we’re going to do it in a planned and logical way, so that we’re preserving the investment that’s already in the roads by doing preventive maintenance in a strategic way while eventually addressing the really bad roads as well.”
The feedback we are getting is that municipalities can make decisions about what level of service they want for their roads, with the knowledge that their allocated budget is being utilized in the most efficient manner possible, and is taking into account the priorities of their taxpayers. At the end of the day, these decisions are improving lives in communities by helping create safe, high-quality roads: the kind of road I want to be driving on!
About the Author
Michael Maher, is a Specialist Engineer in construction materials technology and pavement design. His main interests include aggregate evaluation and performance, sustainable road rehabilitation, asphalt technology, structural design and evaluation of runways and taxiways, pavement asset management, forensic investigations of premature failures, and other related areas. The Decision Optimization Technology (DOT) road software that is revolutionizing the way road networks are evaluated and maintained, was developed by Infrastructure Solutions Inc. (ISI) of Mississauga, Ontario.
* This work was performed by Golder professionals who joined WSP in an acquisition completed in 2021.